Get to Know the Pull-up.
After watching someone perform flawless, beautiful, looking butterfly pull-ups, everyone wants to hop up on the rig and rip them out. It leads nearly all to find out how difficult it is to even hang from the rig, let alone perform a pull-up. What everyone does not see are the countless hours spent mastering the basics to earn their right at performing a strict pull-up. Gaining the strict pull-up leads to beginning to understand the mechanics of the kipping pull-up, which then flows nicely into repping out butterfly pull-ups. It takes mastering the basics, knowing correct positions, and gathering the strength to move your own body weight.
The question you should be asking yourself are what are the basics? What does it take to get there? How long does it take to get there?
1. Hand Position/Grip
- There are two different styles of grip, monkey style and hook grip. The monkey style allows for all of the fingers to be wrapped around the top side of the bar, this is less taxing on your forearm muscles and allow for greater movement from your hand while performing multiple reps. The hook grip style is similar to the hook grip performed in weightlifting, except the thumb is wrapped on the outside of the pointer and middle finger. This style allows for a more secure connection to the bar and greater forearm musculature activation. Neither one is more right than another, they are preference based upon the athlete. What remains common between the two styles is the false grip approach to the bar, and what I mean by this is that you are not resting on the rig with your finger tips. The pull-up bar (rig) sits towards the top of your palm. A good cue for the athlete to know if their hand is in a good position is to look at the position of their knuckles. If the knuckles are pointed backwards, it’s safe to assume that they have a more finger styled grip. Adjusting the knuckles to point towards the ceiling will ensure a flexed wrist position, closer to that false grip, and what we are looking for.
- Hand width is normally just outside the shoulder width of the athlete, this may change due to limb length but this average stands for most.
- To build grip strength, it can come in many forms. Static holds are a great way to tax the forearm strength with use of kettlebells, dumbbells, pronated-grip deadlifts, or anything with the axle bar (that’s the fat bar in the back of the box), or hanging from the rig to gain time under tension (TUT will be a common theme through this piece).
2. Body Position
- As with any other movement in the box, we want to move in a safe and protected position. This will look like a hollow hold while hanging from the rig. The simple task of keeping your feet in front of you will closely ensure a good position. The athlete will have to consider bracing their trunk in order to keep their feet in front of them as they move vertically through space. Keeping the feet in front of the body will stop the back from extending. If the back extends during movement, especially one done under momentum like the kip, then the shoulder would have to internally rotate in order to hold onto the bar as you swing in the air. Now, the shoulder necessarily will not internally rotate through a strict pull-up if you extend through your back, but its a poor and unstable position. So save yourself the heartache and your coaches the headache and keep yourself safe and tight through the movement.
- To build the strength the hold that solid hollow hold position, there are a multitude of exercises that can be performed. All areas of the trunk should be worked in order to obtain optimal strength, such as plank, side planks, wall slams, hollow holds, arch holds, good mornings, and Romanian deadlifts. This list is not exhaustive or conclusive, it is just a glimpse of what you can use.
3. Shoulder Position/the Scapulae/the Latissimus dorsi
- You have great hand position and your body is braced and in a neutral spine position, so what now? Gripping and hanging from the rig will pull your shoulders up to your ears, pulling your arm into full extension while dragging the scapulae (shoulder blade) up with it. This position is called a dead hang. If you have had the opportunity to hear Chris Nentarz give his foundation 101 talk about shoulder position, then you’ve heard that the shoulder in your ear is ear poison and no one wants that. So to initiate the pull-up, you have to pull your shoulder down and back so it rests within the joint space. This is pulling active tension into the shoulder creating torque between your body and the bar, the position is also called the active hang. In the active hang position, you should feel the scapulae being pulled together and tension rising through the lats (your wings). This movement from the shoulder can also be referred to as external rotation. A common misconception to note is the concept that the scapulae is meant to be retracted (down and back) throughout the movement, this is incorrect. The scapulae, as well your shoulder, is meant to move as you pass from one rep to the next. Locking your shoulder down can lead to muscular issues in time. The lat is the primary mover in the pull-up mechanics, it is what allows the athlete to pull themselves up to the bar (surprise!).
- his isn’t really a strength building position, but rather a necessary understanding of how the shoulder and shoulder blade should move during the pull. You can understand this mechanism through moving from dead to active hangs (gaining TUT), or from plank kettlebell pass-throughs, which can help reinforce how the shoulder blade can move.
- Lat strength can be gained from any sort of row, such as ring rows (a regression of the pull-up), single arm dumbbell or kettlebell rows, barbell rows (bent over or pendlay), as well as from different forms of assisted pull-ups by way of various box heights and resistances bands. One of the most ideal ways to build the necessary lat strength is through top holds (the top position of the pull-up with chin over the bar) and negatives. If an athlete can begin to build repetitions of 10 second negative pull-ups, then they are dangerously close to being able to perform a strict pull-up.
4. Shoulder Mobility
- Now that we have briefly gone over all of the exciting parts of the pull-up, its time to break the ice on the less exciting portion. Understanding the positions of the pull-up and what it should feel like is important, but if you are unable to put your hand over your head with needing to move into an extended position, we have a problem. Gaining the ability to put your hand over your head freely and without issue takes time, just like so many of the strength requirements do. Chasing down good shoulder mobility will allow you to hold that nice hollow hold position, grip the rig above your head, and move the shoulder freely. The shoulder can be restricted from multiple muscle groups, such as the pecs, deltoids, trap, lats, the muscles of the arm, and the multiple muscles surrounding/connected to the shoulder blade itself. There are 15 plus muscles that create the shoulder girdle, its important to ensure that these muscles are not bounded down and are able to move freely.
- There are a multitude of stretches or different mobility drills that can be used to gain better mobility through the shoulder. See a coach for any specific areas that need some work!
- There is not a specific number of sets and reps that we can tell you that will allow you to magically obtain a strict pull-up, especially moving onto kipping and butterfly. Time and work are your friends when it comes to these movements, and it is more likely that it will take weeks and months to begin to master them. The pull-up is the long game, so do not be discouraged in your quest of understanding this movement and owning it. It is not impossible to gain the necessary requirements to perform this movement well, it comes down to your perseverance, will power, and determination.
This list is a general overview of what it takes to perform a pull-up. We, the coaching staff, are big proponents of owning the strict pull-up before the use of kipping or butterflying. The strict pull-up ensures you have the required strength to perform more advanced pull-ups while maintaining proper position. More often than not, moving into the kipping movement without being able to perform the strict movement leads to injury or deficiency. We hope that this information helps you understand the components of the pull-up and what it generally takes to perform it well. Through this cycle we should watch some of you perform your first pull-up or become more efficient at whatever the next step is for you.
Be excellent and move well.